A couple of weekends ago I had the privilege of working the 15th annual Lift For Life inside Holuba Hall; something I’ve done now three years running. Every year I come away with some good insight on our Nittany Lions after being up close and personal with the program. Two summers ago, I couldn’t take my eyes off one individual. Imposing size, his confidence and a little swagger mixed in made it impossible not to notice him. I’ll admit, I wasn’t quite sure who he was at first glance, but I could tell just from looks alone that he was going to be a beast on the gridiron. His name, Carl Nassib. We all know what Nassib did as a senior who now collects a paycheck playing for the Cleveland Browns after leading the nation in stats, picking up the Outland Trophy (among many others), and pulling at our heart with his underdog story. Now, I’m not saying I was the first to call his rise to stardom, but you could tell that he was ready to do some damage.
Last summer, it was true freshman Connor McGovern who caught my eye. I distinctly remember sending a message to a few of my friends telling them how ready he looked to make a huge impact on an O-Line that had its fair share of struggles. Again, I was right, as McGovern started every game in 2016 and now has the center position locked down for the next few years.
Why do I bring this up in an article meant to preview our pass catchers, you ask? It’s simple. My biggest takeaway from this year’s Lift For Life was not the 30 reps that Saquon did on the bench-press, or the 38 that Steve Gonzalez ripped off to set a Lift For Life record, both tremendous feats in and of themselves. It wasn’t the way in which those Nittany Lions carried themselves around their fans; always an honor to watch.
No, my biggest takeaway came early in the day while I stood inside the ropes as the team made its entrance. I had to do a double-take as Juwan Johnson passed by, all 6’4” of him, weighing in at well over 200 pounds. He was an imposing figure to say the least, even amongst all the beef and brawn scattered around him. My initial thought was that there is not a defensive back out there, nor a linebacker for that matter, who can match-up with that dude one-on-one. For a wideout, he’s big and lean; muscles and all.
Forgive me for leading off with someone so unproven, but as we search to replace the production Chris Godwin left behind, which is the biggest question for our offense heading into 2017, I think we have our answer. If my track record continues, and Juwan Johnson plays with any kind of anger and willingness to fight for the ball, he will be a nightmare for any defender that steps in his way.
As for the rest of The Good Hands Crew, they are loaded with senior leadership, big-game experience, and a hunger to build on last year’s success. Senior’s DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, and of course Mike Gesicki lead the way. Hamilton, if you didn’t know, is 17 catches away from setting the all-time-record for receptions held by the great Bobby Engram. Although his production has slipped since his freshman year in 2014, mostly due to the rise of Godwin, it’s a record well within his reach as he laces up his shoes one more time as a Nittany Lion. Blacknall turned up the jets in last year’s Big Ten Championship game in Indy and will be looking to atone for missing the Rose Bowl because of a team violation. The most likely replacement for Godwin while Johnson gets his feet wet, Blacknall looks to end his career on a high note and is more than capable of doing so as evidenced by his breakout game versus Wisconsin.
Speedster DeAndre Thompkins returns to stretch the field, as does the 2015 king of the jet sweep, Brandon Polk, who took a medical redshirt in 2016. The second half of the self-dubbed Twin Towers (along with Johnson) is Irvin Charles who had a highlight or two of his own a season ago. Like Johnson, he poses a nightmare matchup with opposing DB’s because of his combination of height (6’5”) and speed. Dae’lun Darian is another tall, lanky receiver that could see the field as a redshirt freshmen. True freshmen Cameron Sullivan-Brown, KJ Hamler (nicknamed the Human Joystick), and Mac Hippenhammer all come in highly touted, but appear destined for redshirt years given the depth and number of upperclassmen ahead of them.
At Tight End, Mike Gesicki is no longer The Redemption King. He more than redeemed himself in 2016 and heads into his senior year a preseason All-American on multiple watch-lists including the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top TE. He is projected on (way-to-early) NFL draft boards to be picked in the first or second rounds if the 2017 season even remotely resembles 2016. Behind Gesicki, Jon Holland made an impression during April’s Blue-White Game and Tom Pancoast is a senior with invaluable experience as a backup if needed. Nick Bowers was a highly ranked recruit in 2015 but was forced to take a medical redshirt last year due to a torn ACL. Finally, Danny Dalton steps into the rotation as a redshirt freshman.
Whether my premonition on Johnson pans out, only time will tell, but the senior trio of Gesicki, Blacknall, and Hamilton are all battle tested and ready to go. They each have unfinished business before hangin’ up those black Nike shoes. I’m not much of a betting man, but if I was, I’d put my money on The Good Hands Crew to do their part and finish the mission!